by Kirstin Merkley ~ December 30th, 2013
As the final minutes of the Winter Solstice approached, I prepared by lighting a candle. I counted down the last ten seconds, then shouted “Happy Solstice!” to my two dogs, Lyra and Darby. The dogs, responding to the excitement in my voice, danced around, tails wagging. It was exactly eleven minutes past eight am on Saturday, December twenty-first.
Sunrise was still about three hours away, so I became the “semi-hibernating bear” I am in wintertime and went back to bed. The dogs, of course, followed suit.
My morning schedule revolves around the wild birds. They arrive at my feeders just as the sky starts to lighten, and I make sure the feeders are filled, ready to give them the much-needed fuel they require after their challenge of getting through the long, cold night. Chickadees, in particular, need to re-fuel, for they do not have a crop and cannot store food, therefore their little bodies feed off what fat stores they have built up over the day. They gain an additional ten percent body weight each day, then burn it off while they shiver to keep warm, during the night. They go into ‘torpor’-a semi-hibernation-to help them as they sleep. So when they come to the feeders in the morning, they are ready to start re-building their fat stores. I put out peanut butter for them, which they highly prize, eating from my spoon and fingers as I put it in various locales on the porch feeding areas. Woodpeckers, Gray Jays, and the pair of Nuthatches, who have chosen to winter-over at the ranch, are also big fans of peanut butter. As are the nocturnal trio of flying squirrels.
Birds have adaptations to help them survive the winter. Chickadees and Ravens-and a few other species- have feathers over their nostrils, which warms the air as they breathe in, and helps hold in moisture in the dry winter climate. During cold snaps, birds fluff their feathers. The contour feathers are curved and overlap even when fluffed, and so form an unbroken layer. This traps air and acts as insulation. A chickadee, for example, can have a difference of seventy degrees between the outer surface temperature of the feathers and its skin temperature-a mere half an inch away.
Birds at your feeders will tell you when a storm is coming. Most birds have a special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ. This can detect incredibly small changes in barometric pressure, and the birds will then prepare for the coming storm-even though it won’t arrive for several hours- by intensifying their feeding activity. Long before clouds appear or the temperature drops, the birds are getting ready.
In severe weather, small birds like chickadees and nuthatches need to restrict their activities greatly and fly as little as possible. Flight can increase heat loss. The feathers below the wing are far less dense than in most other areas of the body, so in very cold weather, even short flights can drain a lot of heat from their small bodies. They spend much of their time near high concentrations of food, such as feeders. The food they have stored during the fall now becomes critically important, and places offering dense vegetation give them protection against the wind.
Chickadees sleep in small tree cavities and deep in spruce boughs. Boreal Chickadees roost in holes in the snow. They plunge into a deep snow bank, often at an angle, then dig a burrow several inches long. Undisturbed snow banks contain a lot of trapped air, so the snow provides excellent insulation. Once a Boreal Chickadee has dug such a burrow, it may return there regularly. It is possible that Black-capped Chickadees also use such snow burrows.
You may witness a bird taking a nap during the short daylight hours, and wonder why it is doing this, instead of collecting food. It is actually taking a quick nap to conserve both energy and body heat. By tucking its face into its shoulder feathers, it is reducing heat loss, which occurs from a bird’s face region-especially around its eyes. They are always ready to fly from danger, however, and don’t sleep deeply during these naps.
The snow reveals information that is difficult to ascertain at any other time of the year. I can see from the numerous vole trails that their population is up from last winter. And the shrew population is down. Hare tracks are also scarce. Usually there are tracks of at least eight or nine hares along the ranch’s drive, but so far this winter I have seen the tracks of only three hares. I have seen evidence of Spruce Grouse along the drive, and on one trip to Talkeetna I spotted a Ruffed Grouse high in a birch alongside the road, picking dormant buds from the ends of twigs. On that same trip to town I walked the dogs along the shore of the river, watching the narrow open channel of water carry ice chunks downstream. The setting sun lit up the ‘art deco’ ice formations along the shoreline pink and gold. I was pleased to see the tracks of ptarmigan winding amongst the bushes on the bank. The dogs shoved their noses into the snow to sniff the scent left by the bird.
In mid-November a cow moose and her six-month old calf discovered a way into the vegetable garden and the prize of kale under the snow. For several nights they returned to paw through the snow and devour the green delicacy. Eventually the kale was gone and they stopped coming to the garden. One morning I stepped out onto the porch on the way to the barn to find mama and calf up by the cabin. The dogs, moose and I all startled each other. Mom and calf trotted off into the forest a little ways, then stopped to look back at me and the dogs. The sun had just begun to send its rays over the line of trees in the south, and the reddish-gold light caught the moose’s face as her big ears swiveled to listen to us. A dog barked once, and the moose turned her head back and trotted on deeper into the forest, her calf following close. They moved easily through the snow, at home in their winter environment. I envied them their grace.
Later that day, as I was filling a feeder at the edge of the forest, I saw something which brought me a smile. Jody the mare visits all the feeders to scarf up any seeds spilled by the birds. In one of her older and deeper hoof prints, something bright red caught my eye. Upon closer examination, I found that a squirrel had chosen to use it as a food cache and had filled the print with cranberries. Why it chose such a precarious cache in the snow was a mystery. It seemed a daffy thing to do, and I would have probably missed this odd and quirky detail of a fellow creature had it not been for the red against the white snow. Winter reveals all kinds of information that would otherwise be missed at other times of the year.
It’s all out there- just waiting to be noticed. What details will winter reveal to you? Are you paying attention? Do you know that the scarcity of hares means there could be a scarcity of owls? Or that the abundance of voles could mean an ermine might move into the area? Will you notice the next time the birds tell you a storm is on its way? We’re a part of Nature-and winter is the time to get bundled up and go out and enjoy the season and all its wonders.